Two Weeks of Falling in Love with Beautiful Hanoi
During the beginning of 2018 my girlfriend and I embarked on a truly incredible trip around the tropical, busy and beautiful countries of South East Asia. We started our journey by flying into Singapore and from there made our way through Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and then Laos. All these countries were stunning in their own ways. From the second I touched down I felt my creative juices flowing and I was raring to push my photography skills further, experience some new cultures and make some new friends.
One of the cities that really stood out to me during our 4 months abroad was the capital city of Vietnam, Hanoi. For me, it ticked all the boxes as both a photographer and a traveller. It was incredibly cheap, the food was delicious, the drinks were plentiful, and the locals were among some of the friendliest I have ever met. As soon as we arrived, we were greeted with a cacophony of sound from motorbike horns, a sound which rarely stopped over the two weeks we were here. Hanoi is a city of great and somewhat chaotic quirks. As you walk around the packed, loud streets you notice the lack of pavement space. Every inch of available pavement is either being occupied by a parked motor bike or by a street vendor of some sort. You have to weave between the gaps, into the road and around groups of Vietnamese men perched on tiny stools just to get to the end of the street. It was a chaos that felt oddly calming though and the more I walked around the streets and the more I interacted with the people around me, the more I felt at home.
Our first week in Hanoi was spent in seclusion as we locked ourselves inside and completed our TEFL certification and had some interviews. It wasn’t until our second week that we started to really explore the city. When we had finally completed our errands and were able to go out and get up to some new adventures, we checked ourselves into The Signature Inn Hostel. When I said that Hanoi is cheap, this hostel encapsulated that. We paid £3 each a night for our beds. This fee included a free walking tour every morning, free breakfast, a free movie area with access to Netflix, a games room and to top it all off… two hours of free beer every evening! We were in love. It was in this hostel that we were accepted for a job in Beijing teaching English. I remember video calling my Dad on the hostel balcony, who had been in teaching for around 40 years, to let him know the news. This hostel is located slap bang in the middle of the Old Quarter which was perfect for me. It meant that I could get up and wander around any corner and chances are there would be something interesting to photograph.
It was on one of these aimless wanders that I truly fell in love with Hanoi. I decided to allow myself to get lost. I wanted to walk deep into the city amidst the noise, the smells and the smiles and surround myself with the city to the point that I was sure I could drown in it. After about 30 minutes I had totally lost my bearings. I was walking down a slightly quieter road. A rare find. I was looking up, I was looking down, I looked to my right and I looked to my left, all in search of something to point my 50mm lens at. As I turned to look across the street, I caught eye contact with a baby, no older than 1. I smiled and the elderly woman of whom the baby was using as a seat beckoned me over. I walked across, smiled again and gestured towards my camera. She gleefully agreed and whilst I snapped away, she called inside for the rest of the family to come out. Out ran two young children already equipped with peace finger signs and ear to ear smiles. I spent a couple of minutes with them taking photographs and laughing. It was a moment of acceptance. Here I am, a random white guy with a camera, aimlessly lost, and these lovely locals let me in to their world. It was a moment that has stuck with me still and it truly set the tone for the rest of my time in the city. Before leaving Hanoi, I wanted to find a way to thank them, so I printed out copies of the edited photographs to give to them. It was a small way of showing my gratitude, but I felt it was very important to give something back.
From this point on every great aspect of the city felt magnified and it was then that I really threw myself into photographing the city. Hanoi’s streets are a blessing and a dream for any street photographer. Everywhere you look, every corner you turn, there is something to point your camera at. It also made it so much easier knowing that the locals were happy to be photographed. 9 times out of ten when I lifted my camera to my eye what I saw through the lens was a big smile and it filled my heart with joy every time I released the shutter. It is a feeling that every photographer strives for.
Whilst exploring and falling deeper in love with Hanoi I came across some great spots and experiences that I believe any street photographer should visit and seek out. I have also listed some that I didn’t get to visit but will spend more time exploring on my inevitable return.
Hanoi is full of markets and it is a great place to capture some candid shots of people at work. It is also a great place to get among the crowds and surround yourself with the action. The most famous market in Hanoi is Dong Xuan Market. It is a storm of people yelling at you to buy their wares, the sound of haggling fills the air and the scent of food follows you everywhere you go. It is a brilliant place to be surrounded by photographic opportunities. Another market I spent some time in was Cho Hom Market. This market is stretched over a few floors inside a mall and spills out into the streets around it. Here you can buy fabrics, food, fresh fish, clothes and accessories. It is another market which is moving at a million miles an hour and is perfect to throw yourself into to get some great shots of the chaos.
The Old Quarter
As mentioned previously, this is where I spent most of my time photographing. The Old Quarter is full of locals going about their day to day life, whether that be sitting out in front of their shop, wandering through the streets selling flowers or fruit from their kart or hard at work fixing a motorbike. The people here are usually very friendly and don’t mind you taking their picture, but remember to always ask first and respect their wishes if they refuse. A great place to get lost in the winding alleys, you are never short of interesting subjects and people to capture.
Hanoi is home to approximately 5 million bikes and mopeds to a population of around 8 million, and they absolutely do what they want. The traffic here, whilst slightly scary at times, is a great thing to turn your camera towards. Bikes fill the streets and the sound of horns beeping fly through the air. A lot of the bikes are stacked high with produce and goods close to tipping point. Make sure that you keep yourself safe whilst crossing roads as it can be very manic!
Hoan Kiem Lake
Hoan Kiem Lake is the very centre of all things Hanoi and everything seems to gravitate towards it. The walk around the lake takes around 45 minutes and during your mini adventure you will see a whole array of people, young and old going about their life. The lake and it’s surrounding area really come to life at night though especially on weekends when the roads around it close and people fill the streets. It is a great place to watch local talent perform and for children to play in what seems like a very safe environment.
Vietnam was once under the control of France and due to this there is a lot of striking French architecture to be found. These quarters set up a very interesting backdrop and juxtaposition next to the Vietnamese day to day life. Streets to seek out include Phan Dinh Phung, Tran Phu, Dien Bien Phu, and Ly Thuong Kiet.
The Rail tracks in Vietnam are incredibly famous and I was gutted to not be able to visit them. The tracks are mere metres away from people’s homes. You can walk along the tracks and capture the life around it but be aware that trains still use these tracks. They usually move slow enough for you to be able to get out of the way, but it is something to keep an eye on! The leading lines make for a great composition.
As well as being a great city itself, Hanoi is also well placed for day trips out of the city. Trips to Ha Long Bay and Tam Coc are absolute musts to see some of the rural life around the capital. My girlfriend and I took trips to both locations and they were stunning with lots of opportunities for landscape photographer in particular. I wish I could have spent more than a couple of weeks in Hanoi, I feel like I only scratched the surface of this city but visa issues meant that we couldn’t stay long. We have plans to return though and road trip through the whole country on the back of motor bikes.
To see more of my street photography work feel free to follow this link and take a look around!
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Oh, and here is the Vietnamese family with their new prints!